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Biglaw Firms Join the San Francisco Start-up Gold Rush

Out west, we’re in the middle of a gold rush. Programmers, marketers, and young business school grads are flocking to the Bay Area all with big dreams of striking start-up gold.

If you wander down Market Street, you’ll hear people mumbling a mantra: “Internet business. Internet business. Internet business.” Or perhaps, “Please let Google buy me. Please let Google buy me.”

Lawyers don’t usually play too much into this equation, except for the unfortunate in-house counsel tasked with explaining to a start-up’s management why playing beer pong in the conference room during work hours may be an unwise decision.

Or are attorneys much more relevant here than the layman might realize? Yesterday, the New York Times profiled a storied Biglaw firm that’s playing quite a part in the current tech bubble boom. It’s not this firm’s first time at the rodeo, but other firms smell dollars in the air, too, and there’s a battle brewing over who will represent the next Google, Facebook, what have you.

Which Biglaw firm is leading the charge?

DealBook’s piece explains the significance of Wilson Sonsini’s new SoMa (South of Market) office. The firm already has another SF office nearby, but SoMa is start-up Mecca these days. So the firm took its business to the customers:

Wilson Sonsini’s new outpost reflects the firm’s evolving mind-set as lawyers jockey for the attention of start-ups. In an effort to build credibility among new technology companies, Wilson Sonsini and others are employing a broad set of tools, including offering free services, cozying up to incubators and writing blogs.

Such efforts are critical. While early-stage ventures represent just 20 percent of the firm’s business, those companies can generate hefty fees as they mature. Wilson Sonsini and other firms also make small investments in young start-ups, which can pay off in later years.

“Small deals would not have interested these firms a few years ago,” said Joseph A. Grundfest, a Stanford law professor. “Now, it’s the new normal.”

This is not to say the firm is new to the tech game. Quite the opposite. It’s a veteran that was largely “left alone” in the 1980s and was the Silicon Valley firm in the ’90s, according to the Times. Lawrence W. Sonsini, the firm’s patriarch, made the introductions between VC giants Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and the young Stanford grads who founded Google. When the search engine went public, Wilson Sonsini was right there.

More recently, Wilson nabbed LinkedIn’s IPO, but couldn’t get Zynga, Groupon, or “most significantly, Facebook, which went to its rival, Fenwick & West.” Only now, because of this tougher competition, is the firm having to revamp the strategy.

Not like it’s all bad, though. Take, for example, the new SoMa office. Who wants pizza and beer?

On a recent Tuesday, the office was co-hosting a pitch event for 30 new start-ups, a chance for companies to present their products to potential investors and win entrance to a coming technology conference…

Wilson Sonsini provided free pizza and Trumer Pils, a popular beer brewed in nearby Berkeley. At other times, the firm has held seminars on hiring, employee liquidity events like an I.P.O., and data privacy, which featured regulators from the Federal Trade Commission.

Like Huey Lewis said, it’s hip to be square.

Law Firms Mine San Francisco for Internet Start-Up Gold [DealBook / New York Times]

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